During the June 2016 EU referendum, Gibraltar voted 95.9% on an 84% turnout for the UK to remain in the European Union. It was the highest vote for the remain side. However, since then, Gibraltar political representatives have broadly accepted the result and even recently stated they were ready for a No deal Brexit. This all appeared to change last weekend, when at a Liberal Democrat party conference panel debate on Brexit, Gibraltar Deputy Chief Minister, the Hon Joseph Garcia, made some comments which were a clear departure from their neutral stance.
He stated that the UK should revoke Article 50 (which effectively means the UK would not leave the EU ). This was a political bombshell. This was a direct re-opening of the EU referendum debate which was questionable to say the least. The Liberal Democrats at the conference have now changed their Brexit policy to one of revoking Article 50 and of being committed to staying in the EU. Even one of key Liberal Democratic MPs, Norman Lamb, has warned that they should be careful; they were playing with fire on this issue.
Gibraltar has always been pro-active in promoting what it perceives as its own interests, and indeed sometimes those of other British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. On the whole, these efforts have been positive, but it could well be that a major error of judgment has been made on this very contentious issue. Aligning themselves with a dogged remain caucus, determined not to accept the referendum result, could very much affect the high standing Gibraltar has in the eyes of the British public.
Gibraltar back in November 2002 recorded an even higher vote of nearly 99% to dismiss the idea of shared sovereignty with Spain and to remain a British Overseas Territory. In making that vote they voted to be part of the UK bloc and to respect decisions made by it. That does not mean sniping at the decision to leave the EU, but constructively helping the UK to obtain the best deal or the best no deal exit for both the UK and themselves.
Joseph Garcia also went as far as being disrespectful to the 17.4 million leave voters, when he said that many of those who voted to leave probably had no idea of some of the consequences of their vote. That is simply not clever and a departure from the cautious approach Gibraltar has adopted on the Brexit issue with the main UK political parties. It is important for Gibraltar to have the British public on side when it comes to their desire to continue to be British. That is hardly going to be achieved by what many leave voters will regard as derogatory comments.
One of the additional problems with the comments of Joseph Garcia is that sometimes pronouncements by Gibraltar are seen as representative of the views of the thirteen other British Overseas Territories and three Crown Dependencies. On the issue of Brexit, there is a strong school of thought that the others would have voted to leave the EU, so this is another reason for Gibraltar to make it clear that they do not speak for others, but only themselves.
Indeed it is still a source of some resentment that Gibraltar was the only one of British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to be able to participate in the UK-EU referendum. Cynics would argue it is because Gibraltar was the only one which was going to vote remain.
The reason given for the others’ non-participation was because they are technically not in the EU, whereas technically Gibraltar is. However, the reality is that all the others are greatly affected by the issue of EU membership and should have been allowed a say. Whereas the population of Gibraltar is about 34,000, the combined populations of the other British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are about 490,000. There was in fact a belated attempt at an appeal to the Privy Council to enable the three Crown Dependencies’ citizens to vote in the referendum, but this was not supported by the government.
Gibraltar has a coalition government made up of the majority seven Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party and three Gibraltar Liberal Party politicians. Joseph Garcia is leader of the latter and obviously has strong ties with the UK Liberal Democrats. It now will be interesting to see if the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the Hon Fabio Picardo, puts some damage limitation into any comments he may make at the coming Labour Party conference on 21st September. He would be wise if made clear that what his coalition partner has said on Brexit is not government policy. However, Gibraltar now has an election on October 17th so the future policy on Brexit will probably have to wait until after then.